Jacqueline Richardson ’21 | Assistant Arts Editor
With their latest album “Monsters Exist,” Orbital attempts to reconcile their imaginative, danceable beats with their political inclinations — and they do so with varying success. The best moments in the album come when they craft a soundscape that echoes our current political climate. The worst, when they shoehorn commentary into their songs in a way that dilutes both their vibrant electric vision and the ideas they’re trying to promote.
Brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll got the name of their band, Orbital, from Greater London’s orbital motorway. Known as the M25, it was a key part of the early rave scene in the ’80s. Paul recorded their first single, “Chime,” on tape for less than a pound. It proceeded to become a massive hit, reaching #17 on the UK Singles Chart and was featured on multiple “best of” lists and compilations.
After this initial success, the duo released a few singles and EPs, as well as their first self-titled album, but their next big success would come in 1994. On June 25 of that year, the two headlined the Glastonbury Festival, and Orbital transformed from an underground hit band to a mainstream breakout.
They released albums, EPs and singles throughout the ’90s, helping the Mortal Kombat soundtrack reach Platinum-selling status by including a remix of their popular single “Halcyon.” In 2004, the band broke up, but got back together in 2008 to play at the Big Chill Festival; in 2012, they released the album Wonky before breaking up again in 2014. Monsters Exist, released on Sept. 14, is their latest effort.
If now seems like a strange time for the brothers to begin making music again, it’s worth remembering that Orbital was never an apolitical band.
Included in the remixes of their song “Are We Here?” was “Criminal Justice Bill?” which protested the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 with a four-minute track of silence. Their song “The Girl with the Sun in Her Head” was recorded in a studio powered only by solar energy; “Dŵr Budr,” Welsh for “dirty water,” references the 1996 Sea Empress oil spill.
With Monsters Exist, the duo try to continue their progressive streak. Sometimes they continue in the vein of their past specificity (with P.H.U.K., Please Help the UK, the brothers lament Brexit). More often, they decline to name the monsters they condemn and only sometimes do they get away with this vagueness. The titular track, for example, with its nervously repetitious initial beats and cavernous booms, neatly captures current anxieties.
“P.H.U.K.” asks its plea in the title and delivers a solid electric track. Moreover, in a time in which singles grasp our attention span for no more than four minutes, Monsters Exist makes for a good album to sit down and listen to beginning to end — rare when so many albums buffer their singles with fillers.
But their vagueness does, in the end, work against them. The last track in their album, “There Will Come a Time,” which features a speech by English physicist Brian Cox, feels like an odd ornament, strangely tacked on. The song’s opening lines convey a strange message: “There are few certainties in science, but one fact of which we can all be certain is that one day we will die.” In an age where talk of death is commonplace, this statement fails to be noteworthy in the way it tries to be. This point marks one of the album’s pitfalls; it tries to be political without being controversial.
Today, artists can’t toe this middling ground — otherwise, their art runs the risk of dissolving into the world’s noise.